April 13, 2016 – Public health professionals analyzed the readiness of the Houston area for a potential outbreak of the Zika virus on Friday during a workshop at the University of Houston Law Center.
The conference, titled “Zika Virus Workshop: Public Health and Legal Control Measures,” was hosted by the Law Center’s Health Law & Policy Institute and featured talks from local health experts and Research Professor Allison N. Winnike, who outlined public health control measures to combat Zika. Professor Seth J. Chandler served as the workshop’s moderator.
“What universities and especially public law schools like ours can do is provide a forum to bring people together, and to have great programs like this so people can discuss the issues and be prepared,” Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes said in his opening remarks.
Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, was the workshop’s opening speaker. Hotez explained that if a pregnant woman is bit by an Aedes aegypti mosquito and infected with Zika during her first trimester, it will have devastating effects on the development of her child’s brain. Hotez said that poor, urban communities are the most at-risk for a Zika outbreak.
“This outbreak is moving so fast that we’re having a lot of trouble keeping up with what’s going on,” he said. “It really is a truly evil virus. Under our nose we are witnessing a horrific humanitarian tragedy unfold. The Gulf Coast is uniquely vulnerable to a Zika virus infection. I’m worried about the poor neighborhoods of Houston, New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Tampa, and Miami. This is where I believe it could become an epicenter of the Zika virus infection in the continental United States.”
Standing water, houses without window screens, and discarded containers and tires can become a breeding ground for Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Dr. Mustapha Debboun, the director of the Mosquito Control Division for the Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services department, said Aedes aegypti are sometimes referred to as the “cockroach of mosquitoes” because of how difficult they are to manage.
“It lives with us, next to us, and in our homes,” Debboun said. “They have also found a way through evolution to lay their eggs in containers. When you look in the containers, you can look and think there’s nothing, but the eggs will already be there. They can stay there up to several months. When the container gets filled with water, the eggs will already be hatched.”
Zika can be transmitted through the bite of an infected mosquito, from mother to child, sexual contact, blood transfusion, or by laboratory exposure. Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director for of the Harris County department of Public Health & Environmental Services, said there are 346 Zika cases in the U.S., 32 of which are pregnant women. There are 12 Zika cases in Harris County, but they are associated with travel and were not locally transmitted.
“This is a function of travel,” Shah said. “This is people going to a Zika-infected country, presumably getting bit, and coming back. The game-changer for us is when we flip to local transmission, where we have someone who does not have any evidence of travel.”
Winnike said that while the federal government has some power in the fight against Zika, it is the states that are primarily responsible for protecting the public’s health. State authority can be delegated to local health authorities, however most Texas counties do not have a mosquito control district like Harris County.
“You can fit a whole lot of things under the umbrella of health and general welfare,” Winnike said. “This is a really broad power that states have to protect the public’s health. It’s very significant and powerful. At the same time, we have to make sure we’re not overstepping our bounds with this power. We have a lot of opportunity in this area, but we’re constrained to make sure that we’re not infringing on individuals’ rights.”